No sooner had I arrived in Tel Aviv in January of this year, that I had the following exchange with an elderly falafel vender near the Dizengoff Center:
"Where are you from?" the fellow enquired.
"Oh! Australia. I saw the news. You are having terrible floods."
"Yes, quite terrible," I confirmed.
"This is my God's doing. He is very angry at your country." He made a few tsking sounds.
"Why on earth would your God be so angry with Australia?"
"Too much of this," he answered, as he rubbed his two index fingers together.
It took me a moment or two, but I soon understood that he was simulating two penises poking at each other.
I could have pointed out that if God were angry at Australia for our hordes of homosexuals, he might have picked a better target than Central Queensland, which, as we all know, is a bastion of family values and a certified gay-free zone. Or I might even have drawn his attention to the very city we were standing, one which is known to more than a few as the gay capital of the Middle East - a badge worn with considerable pride by many of its residents.
But one can't win an argument with God, so I just ate my falafel.
That gay Israelis are able to openly defy the country's small but dedicated contingent of God-fearing falafel vendors is very much a testament to a strong secular tradition that is justifiably celebrated, including by many of Israel's supporters the world over.
But the country's demography is radically changing. In a report published earlier this year, Arnon Sofer, a demographer from the University of Haifa, predicted that Israel will have an Orthodox majority by 2030.
Meanwhile, Israeli secularism is being redefined for a new generation. One of the most prominent new secularists is Avigdor Lieberman, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, the third largest political party in the country.
This is a fellow who campaigned under the slogan "no citizenship without loyalty," and promised his supporters that he would force Arab citizens to sign oaths of fidelity to the Jewish State. On the plus side, his party has consistently supported a two-state solution - subject to revoking the citizenship of a large number of Israel's Arab citizens, to be sure.
The nobler traditions of Israeli secularism - and indeed Jewish humanism - are less evident and influential than they have perhaps ever been. Presently, the two largest Israeli political parties are
Kadima and Likud.
Kadima was established in 2005 by Ariel Sharon, perhaps the most right wing and uncompromising Prime Minister in the country's history. That's the party of the centre-left. Likud is the party that Ariel Sharon fronted until 2005 but which is now led by another contender for the most right wing Prime Minister in Israel's history, Binyamin Netanyahu. That's the party of the centre-right.
Further evidence of this rightward shift, which has been going on for some time, can be seen during times of national celebration. During this year's Jerusalem Day celebrations, an occasion which marks the "re-unification" of Jerusalem in 1967, I followed up to 40,000 mostly - young Israelis as they marched through East Jerusalem like a victorious army, chanting sweet nothings to its Arab residents like, "Butcher the Arabs," "Death to Leftists," and "Mohammad is Dead."
For those who doubt my testimony, there is ample footage on youtube that will attest to this disgraceful performance, one that should have prompted a period of national introspection but didn't. Many of the participants will soon be wearing military fatigues as they undertake a lengthy period of compulsory military service. That should send a chill up the spine of those who know anything about
Incidentally, the largest peace demonstration in years was held a few weeks later in Tel Aviv. A paltry 5,000 people from around the country showed up.
All of this serves to demonstrate that whilst over forty years of occupation has certainly been a tragedy for Palestinians, it has also been poisonous for Israel. If nothing else will, the Palestinian UN bid for statehood should prompt Netanyahu to get serious about peace, something nobody can accuse him of ever having been before.
The matter is urgent. It's only going to get harder from here.
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